K-Pop: From Arirang to SNSD

The K-Pop industry today is an efficient, international powerhouse of talented and good-looking artists. Discovering K-Pop is what really introduced me to Korean culture, allowing me to explore this beautiful country. How did we get to modern K-Pop from traditional Korean songs, and how do these cultural roots still affect K-Pop today?

girls generation early
Girls Generation’s Single “Gee”, 2009

In 1887, under King Gojong of the Joseon dynasty, missionary N.H. Allen introduced the phonograph to Korea. The first Korean singing record was recorded in 1896 by anthropologist Alice C. Flecther, and includes eleven Korean songs, such as “Arirang”.Screenshot (15) Sung by Ah Jongsik, a Harvard student, Lee Heechul and Yang Son. The first official Korean album was released by Columbia Records as “Korean Song” in 1907. In the early 1920s, Japan Phonograph Shokai Co Ltd began to release Korean albums labeled in Korean rather than English, called 닙보노홍 (Nib-bo-no-hong). These album featured a Taeguk mark, the yin-yang symbol from the Korean flag, and were known as 태극표 (Taeguk-pyo) or “Taeguk-branded”.

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태극표 (Taeguk-pyo) or “Taeguk-branded”

In 1925, albums were produced labeled 일축죠셔소리반, but were more commonly known as 독수리표 (Doksuripyo, Eagle-branded) or 매표 (Maepyo, Falcon-Branded), for the eagle insignia on the records. In 1928, the first Korean album produced electronically was recorded, entitled. Joseon Yiwangjik Aakbu (Classical Court Music). In the 1930s, Korean popular music become a much more tangible presence in Korean culture as new labels emerged, including “O-ke” a Korean label owned by Lee Chul and the only label with its own recording studio in Seoul. Chae Gyuyeop, known as the first Korean pop singer, made his appearance in 1930. However, the early 1930s were mostly led by opera singers and interlude-singers, such as Lee Aerisu, Kang Hongshik, and Jeon Ok, and those who were former gisaengs, such as Lee Hwangjungseon and Wang Subok. Throughout this era, more Korean pop singers arose, taking Korean pop into a “golden age”. The patriotic and optimistic tone of the music from this era was vital to maintaining the Korean national spirit, as the county was under Japanese imperial role. Korean pop music allowed Koreans to hold onto their culture, and search for hope in dark times. Beginning in 1940, the Pacific War brought Korean pop music to a halt, as any music that did not concern victory in the war was easily labeled as pro-Japanese.Screenshot (17) The Joseon Records Culture Association, Korean Pop Music Association, and Joseon Records Co. Ltd were launched after the war, with music focused on the joy of liberation from imperial control. However, growing ideological difference soon split the music cultures of the North and the South. During this period, record production was extremely difficult, and so musical troupes and performance organizations lead by opera companies carried Korean pop music. The Korean Singers Association was founded in 1948, and Nam Insu was elected as the first president. During the Korean War, access to the works of writers or performers who defected to North Korea was banned. Screenshot (18)Entertainers were called to entertain troops, and following the armistice, Busan and Deagu were centers for the growth of the music industry, as many people fled to these areas during the war. In Seoul, the entertainment of US troops led to the opening of new clubs and the ‘hook-on-dancing syndrome;, where dance music with fast rhythms rose to popularity. The singers that entertained soldiers later performed for Korean audiences. Korean film replaced operas and musical dramas as the center of popular culture following the fame of the movie “Madame Freedom”. In 1959, the Kim Sisters, Korea’s first girl group, gained recognition in the United States. In the late 1950s, LP records were first produced in Korea, enabling the industry to expand and reach a wider audience. This move towards industrialization allowed new styles and genres to emerge. In 1962, The Broadcast Ethics Review Committee was established, followed by the Korean Arts Ethics Committee, founded in 1967. From this point until the 1990s, all Korean music was subject to pre-censorship.

Much of the music from this period reflects the shift from rural to urban life, often describing characters who made this transition. In 1968, Shin Junghyeon, the “Father of Korean Rock”, introduced the Pearl Sisters, who were highly popular, and Han Deasu, the “Father of Modern Folk”, returned to Korea from New York. The male duet Twin Folio and Kim Chuja, the “sexy queen”, began to bring the youth into Korean pop. Throughout the 1970s, youth culture began to contrast and stand in opposition to older generations and the military dictatorship which controlled the government.

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Youth culture of the 1970s

Many songs were banned, and even the prominent musicians of the time were prohibited from performing. From 1975 to the mid-80s, Korean music albums were required to include a “soundness song” as the final song, which promoted the political control of the dictatorship. The creation of the MBS College Music Festival caused a shift in the industry, paving the way for the renaissance of Korean pop in the 1980s.

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MBS College Music Festival

Throughout the 1980s, underground musicians began to emerge in mainstream culture. This era is also called the ‘sole lead’ era, as Joe Yongpil gained a large following throughout Korea. Lee Munsae ussured in a golden age for Korean ballads, bringing the standar of Korean music popuarity to that of foreign pop. The genre of Korean rock gained prominence, led by band such as Song Gol Mae, Deul Guk Hwa, and Bu Hwal. Songs representing the desire for democratization also became more poplar, reflecting a shift in Korea’s political culture. In 1992, Seo Taeji and Boys, a rap dance group, gained popularity with teenagers and ushered in the “New Generation Culture”. The 90s also saw the abolition of pre-censorship of Korean music, as well as the rise of Korean indie music and large entertainment companies, producing legends such as G.O.D. and S.E.S. Following the economic depression of the IMF crisis, Korean pop music began to expand internationally. The early 2000s saw a retro revival characterized by nostalgia, a growing Korean indie movement, and the rising global popularity of Korean pop culture. In 2002, the boy band H.O.T. reached the top of the Japanese Oricon chart, and was the first Korean album to reach such international recognition. Hallyu, or the “Korean Wave”, spread Korean music, film, and dramas to the world. The hallyu phenomenon was led by icons such as the Wonder Girls, Dong Bang Shin Ki, and Girls Generation. K-Pop’s global growing popularity is greatly due to the “Big Three” of K-Pop, referring to the three largest entertainment corporations in South Korea: SM. YG, and JYP.

DBSK Golden Disc Awards 2008
Dong Bang Sin Ki at the Golden Disc Awards, 2008

SM Entertainment was founded in 1989.  Founder Lee Soo-man began his own signing career during his time at Seoul National University, After graduating from California State University, Lee returned to Korea and founded ‘SM Studio’ in Gangnam. Some of their earliest and most memorable artists are H.O.T. and S.E.S.

girls generation now
Girls’ Generation, from SM Entertainment

In 1996, Yang Hyun-suk and his younger brother, Min-suk, a former members of the legendary Seo Taeji and Boys, founded YG Entertainment. Their first artist was hip-hop trio Keep Six, followed by duo Jinusean and 1TYM. Yang credits Jinusean and 1TYM for bringing hip-hop and YG in mainstream Korean pop culture. Their first “idol” singer was Se7en, followed by the idol group BIGBANG.

JYP Entertainment was founded by singer Jin-Young Park in  1997, originally known as “Tae-Hong Planning Corporation”. Their first singer, Rain, debuted in 2002. One of my personal favorites of his is “30 Sexy”.

Korean pop music has truly opened Korea to the world; however, its historic origins and cultural significance should be remembered. I feel like knowing the history can help ensure everyone who enjoys Korean pop is respectful of Korean culture. K-Pop has influenced so many people, and with it’s rich history, it’s amazing to listen and become a part of its growing global community.

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